By Rachel Wyman
Clinical Nutritionist Educator
We see it everywhere these days when shopping for food – organic this and natural that – but what do these terms really mean about the foods in the package when you see these labels? Is the food inside actually better for you if the box reads organic? Does the term natural really mean there’s no artificial ingredients at all?
To answer these questions, we break down these terms to define what they really mean for your health.
Organic products must be produced without genetic engineering, antibiotics, growth hormones, ionizing radiation, sewage sludge or prohibited substances, and must be subject to inspection by an authorized USDA certifying agent. Products labeled “100 percent organic” must contain only ingredients that are certified organic. Products labeled “organic” must include at least 95 percent organic ingredients. Products labeled “made with organic” must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients.
Organic foods and pesticides
Some consumers buy organic products to minimize pesticide exposure. Frequent intake of organic produce is linked to lower urinary pesticide concentration. Individuals with high exposure to conventional pesticides via work or proximity to pesticide spraying show increased risk of Parkinson’s disease, Type 2 diabetes, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, impaired fetal and childhood growth and neurodevelopment. More research is needed to define pesticide effects in the concentrations typically consumed.
Organic foods and nutritional value
Some consumers purchase organic products because they believe them to be more nutritious. In the case of processed foods, the nutrition facts label and ingredients list are better yardsticks of nutritional value, as even a candy bar of whole milk, butter, sugar and salt can carry the “organic” stamp. In the case of unprocessed whole foods, the differences in nutritional value are still subject to debate.
A 2014 meta-analysis of 343 publications showed no significant difference in carbohydrate or protein content between organic and conventional fruits and vegetables. The analysis also compared phytonutrient content and heavy-metal content. Organic fruit compared to conventional had significantly higher carotenoid and xanthophyll content. Organic vegetables and grains had significantly higher flavone and flavenol content. Organic grains had significantly lower concentrations of cadmium, a potentially toxic heavy metal, compared with conventionally grown. More research confirming how these differences translate to specific health outcomes is needed.
Organic foods and global impact
Some consumers choose organic products for reasons beyond human health. Organic farming practices promote soil fertility, biodiversity, worker welfare, animal welfare, reduced soil erosion, reduced water pollution and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
The FDA describes “natural” as follows: nothing artificial or synthetic has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. This includes added colors, artificial flavors and synthetic ingredients.
In contrast to the organic label, no expert consensus or federally regulated definition for the term natural on food products exists, and there is no certification or inspection process. Also, how the food was grown or processed has no bearing on the use of this term. As noted with organic processed foods, natural does not always equate to healthful; as this label could be applied to candy, cookies or soda, so long as the flavors and ingredients are not synthetic.
So, what’s the bottom line?
It is important to see past the “health halo effect” of the organic and natural labels on processed foods and examine the nutrition facts panel and ingredients list. There is no evidence of significant differences in macronutrient, vitamin and mineral content between organic and conventional produce.
Concerns regarding pesticide exposure, antioxidant content, heavy-metal content and global impact may steer many consumers toward organic foods. However, the benefits of eating conventionally grown produce far outweigh any potential health risks, and a broader goal with clear health benefits would be to increase intake of whole, minimally processed foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains.
Rachel Wyman, RD, is a Clinical Nutrition Educator at Mission Weight Management.
- https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Labeling%20Organic%20Products.pdf 
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5658984/ 
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4141693/ 
- http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/0218p30.shtml 
- https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm456090.htm 
- http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/040715p40.shtml